In this month's Inspirations, Roo Parkin tells Anita Loughrey how she is inspired by Nina Bawden.

Nina Bawden was an Essex girl. Born in 1925 and raised on an Ilford housing estate (which she somewhat snootily described as ‘rather nasty’), the young Nina went on to study and graduate from Oxford University. She published her first book in 1953 and forged a fantastic writing career finding herself winning or short-listing for a plethora of prizes. Carrie’s War and The Peppermint Pig seem as popular today, at least in my local libraries, as they ever were. 

Nina Bawden

I remember the first time I encountered Nina Bawden’s work. I was on holiday on the Norfolk coast, because even though I was born there and we lived there, my parents couldn’t imagine anywhere better to holiday. Nearly every single year (I know). That particular summer was GRIM. The weather did its drizzly best to ruin almost every day and the North Sea never looked a less inviting shade of brown. It was the eighties, and I’m telling you now that sea was brown. 

Some things never change, and while the modern era holiday cottage may be all Farrow and Ball and sexy Nespresso machines, one enduring feature remains a reassuring constant – the RANDOM book selection. Finely curated over the years by holidaymakers past and a timeless desire to donate ‘stuff they don’t want to pack', you never know what might be lurking. Not that I cared. Random, boring or downright inappropriate, I always gobbled everything that was there to be read. But what a delight it was that year to find a battered little paperback called The Witch’s Daughter skulking between Thomas Hardy and saucy old Jilly Cooper.

The Witch’s Daughter is a middle-grade story set on a wild, remote Scottish island. It has mystery, it has adventure and Bawden’s descriptive powers are breath-taking – but more than anything for me, the book is an exquisite study of loneliness. I was an only child, and while I’m thankful now for much of what that brought, it was achingly lonely at times. So, there I was, a fairly solitary child, on a grey, windswept coast reading about Perdita, the fabled witch’s daughter who all the other children were too frightened to play with. I was entranced. Perdita’s developing friendship with two children who visit her island, one of whom is blind, had me gripped. 

And while Bawden’s story weaving is so clever and so perfect – there is plenty of action between her poetic narration to give the tale brilliant pace. The story never loses its tenderness though, right until the end, and I think I loved it for making me cry. Other books had made me laugh, some had made me want to nail the plot twist or say their words over and over again – and there were those which ignited my imagination. But Nina Bawden made me cry, and the gloomy little bugger that I was found that brilliant. 

At the end of this article, you will see that in July I published a picture book Sid’s Big Fib - a cheery, energetic and, dare I say it humorous tale about two very naughty children. So, although I hugely admire Bawden’s writing, is it honest to say she inspired me? She wrote at least a couple of picture books, but one was about St Francis of Assisi and the other William Tell, so hmm I’m not sure about any obvious similarities there. 

Sid's Big Fib - published by Maverick Arts

With my middle-grade writing, which I am desperately trying to hone, however, there is a very different tone: it’s atmospheric and some of it pretty emotional. One of my characters has something about them which, I had forgotten, Perdita does too. I can only think if you have truly loved something, a little piece of it hunkers down within you, even if you haven’t realised it.

I still have that little battered paperback – I can’t recall details, but reckon my mum sacrificed something decent to enable a respectable swap! The pages are very yellow now and lots of them are loose, but I wouldn’t ever part with it. The wonderful Shirley Hughes illustrated the story, including the front cover – a beautiful depiction of a barefoot Perdita all alone but yearning for friends. 

Aside from a glittering authorial career, Nina Bawden’s life was also peppered with sadness. One of her sons, Nicholas, took his own life. The Potters Bar rail crash took her second husband’s life and her daughter, also called Perdita, died just a few months before Nina in 2012. 

Do the books still resonate? Well, they do with me and judging by the multiple stamps on the library slips, Carrie’s War and The Peppermint Pig remain popular with readers. No doubt some references are outdated, but Nina Bawden championed a feisty female heroine and encouraged readers to ‘feel all the feels’ – although I doubt she’d have put it like that! One thing I know for certain is that when we packed our holiday cases and headed back home to our housing estate, I was incredibly glad I’d met The Witch’s Daughter.


Roo Parkin is a London-based trifle enthusiast writing picture books and (attempting) middle-grade novels. Maverick published her debut picture book, Sid’s Big Fib, in July 2022. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram

*Cover image and illustration images taken from The Witch's Daughter by Nina Bawden, illustrated by Shirley Hughes, 1975 edition, published by Puffin


Anita Loughrey writes fiction, non-fiction and teacher resources. She has 100+ books published by a multitude of publishers both in the UK and internationally. She has two regular slots in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum one of writing for children, the other on author’s research secrets. Find out more about Anita and her books on her website and follow her blog, and on Twitter and Instagram 

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this article! Thanks Roo


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